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Running dry

April 26th, 2007

My piece in today’s Fin (I’ll post it tomorrow) has some responses to Howard’s announcement that there may be no allocations of irrigation water for the year beginning in June, unless we get good rain. A quick summary
* Drought relief policy needs to focus on buying back excess allocation
* With inflows apparently suffering a long-term decline, across the board cuts will be needed
* In the short run, we may need to consider intervention and rationing to keep tree crops alive

Meanwhile, in Queensland, there is talk of evacuating towns that are running out of water. This seems an over-reaction (or more likely media beatup) to me. A reported cost of $8000 per week for tankers to supply water to a town of 1500 people is not a huge sum. Stlll, unless rainfall returns to higher levels soon, a lot of communities are going to face decline and maybe in some cases disappearance.

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  1. gordon
    April 26th, 2007 at 11:34 | #1

    The threat of disappearance of rural communities entails a corresponding threat for rural electorates, which will cause huge problems for the Liberals and Nationals. Bill Heffernan is already on the record as advocating an Australian version of the Great Trek to the far North, presumably to keep the “Volk” together (and voting together) in new electorates up there. If that doesn’t work, maybe rural refugees to the cities could be formed into a sort of “virtual electorate” based on their electorate of origin rather than their new electorate of residence!

    Joking aside, we are likely to see enormous efforts made to maintain these rural electorates in being, and need to guard against silly expenditures which have electoral arithmetic behind them, rather than ecological or economic rationales.

  2. April 26th, 2007 at 14:19 | #2

    The increased imperative to cut water allocations is a good point. A couple of minor comments – on the AFR piece.

    Don’t the CSIRO forecast that precipitation might increase rather than decrease in the MDB? I notice that the recent IPCC report comes down a little bit more firmly in favour of a decrease but my guess is that people don’t know. It might then – even apart from the problems of identifying a permanent from transitory shock – be premature to see the current drought as evidence of global warming.

    Rationing to keep tree crops alive makes most sense if it is a transitory shock and not evidence of global warming. Otherwise don’t you want as a long-term solution to encourage crops that don’t involve the need for water allocations every year.

    In an election year its going to be hard to stop inefficiently excessive levels of drought assistance.

  3. jquiggin
    April 26th, 2007 at 15:32 | #3

    Good comments – some brief replies

    The politics of all this are going to dominate, as I said in the article.

    The CSIRO projections mostly give a decrease in rainfall, though some give an increase. Higher temperatures increase evaporation and reduce runoff so the effect there is unequivocal. On rationing, I’m assuming that the current drought is a manifestation of the new lower tail of the distribution, rather than the new mean.

  4. melanie
    April 26th, 2007 at 21:13 | #4

    It would not be the first time in Australian history that ghost towns have been created by lack of water.

    But I agree, in this case politics will dominate. the Coalition will try to preserve rural industries. Labor will divert water to urban agglomerations. Nobody will do anything to actually conserve water. Ergo the MDB is dead already.

  5. April 27th, 2007 at 11:09 | #5

    John, Visually the rainfall figures seem to show no trend at all in the MDB or elsewhere for that matter. Even in Perth or south-west WA where most commentators describe a persistent fall in winter rains no obvious trend. It seems to me this is a big issue.

    See e.g.
    http://www.bom.gov.au/cgi-bin/silo/reg/cli_chg/timeseries.cgi

  6. April 27th, 2007 at 11:34 | #6

    Actually looking through the RSMG site I saw a graph for streamflows into Perth that answers my own question. Temperature rises, rainfall wobbly but streamflow, falls daramatically since the 197os. Presumably (as you suggest) evaporation effects.

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